Monday, December 17, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Christmas Special

Fifty-three Christmases ago, when Barbara and I had been married slightly more than three months, my mother gave us a beautiful top ornament for our first Christmas tree.  It was our first "special ornament."

Each year something that symbolizes what was special about the year just concluding becomes that year's special ornament.  A Greek palace guard from our visit to Athens; a steel drummer from one of our trips to Young Island, our favorite spot in the Caribbean; special ornaments given to us by our parents; the laminated cover from my first book, Remembering to Breathe; items that represent important career achievements; a stuffed dog announcing the Christmas gift that turned out to be Honeybear; and, increasingly, mementos from dog sports triumphs -- obedience for me, conformation and agility for Barbara; a special item from our 50th anniversary party.  And on and on.  Fifty-two of these memory-loaded treasures.

It should come as no surprise that 2012 has gone down as the Presto! year.  And the year of the world's most delightful competition obedience students. 

Those two happy circumstances intersected on a Saturday morning this summer.  Two of my students showed up at a lesson with a surprise "puppy shower."  Only it wasn't a shower, it was a downpour of puppy things which filled "Presto!'s first toy box."  Mostly toys but also a brush, shampoo that my little guy is still using, even a kit to record his first paw print.

The piece de resistance, though, was an almost real , nearly life-size stuffed border collie.  He's waited patiently the rest of the summer and through the fall for his turn in the lights.  And now his time has come.  Nestled up there in the branches, surrounded by lights, he represents the very best of 2012.  He's this year's special ornament.

Merry Christmas! everyone.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Little Pleasures

So Presto! is seven months old, at least a year -- probably more -- away from the Novice B ring.  Right now it's all about teaching fundamentals . . . and making it fun.  As I write this, I have two lacerations on my nose and one on my upper lip.  Yeah, we're having fun.

Attention, fun and want-to:  in training and competition they're like a three-legged milking stool.  Lose any one of those and the whole thing topples over.  Presto! was born with want-to gushing from every pore.  My challenge is to sustain that enthusiasm while at the same time teaching pinpoint heeling, spot-on fronts perfect finishes, relentless focus, and "discipline," a word not easily installed in the vocabulary of a young border collie.  Ah yes, discipline.  More on that in an upcoming post.

So we train and play, play and train..  My mantra:  patience, patience, patience.  And the big rewards -- the truly thrilling moments in our training sessions -- are the little pleaures.

I've been amazed at how easy it's been to teach my little guy to sit and stay.  Planted there while I go to the van to get whatever.  Sitting at attention (well, most of the time) while I put cheese on  the go-outs pole.

Sitting yes, downing no.

Presto! has known the concertina (fold-back) down since he was about nine weeks old.  He's also known how to pop right back up. And I quickly learned that trying to hold him there was the most counter-productive thing I could do. But this past Monday, one day after his seven-month birthday, the light bulb went on.  I ran back into the house.  "Barbara!" I said, "He just stayed down for about ten seconds . . . on his own!"  And we've progressed from there.  Laugh if you wish, but that made my day.

Then there's the matter of the finishes.  My bad!  Fronts have always been my Waterloo -- or so I thought.  Near the end of  Bravo!'s obedience career, before it was cut short by the double whammy of lymphangiectasia and an arthritic right hip, he was regularly putting on a heeling clinic in the ring.  And we were losing our points elsewhere.  On fronts?  Where else?

There are six fronts and seven finishes in Utility.  The last few times Bravo! showed, I approached the judge after our run with something like,  "How many of those points were fronts?"  And was surprised to get a response something like:  "It wasn't the fronts, it was your finishes."  Which puzzled me.  I can look over my shoulder and see the finishes, and most of them looked good.  Had I hit a run of blind judges?

Fast-forward now to Presto!'s early training in the backyard.  I'm practicing get-around finishes.  The kitchen window opens.  Barbara says, "Every one of them is crooked."  Oh God!  Barbara's vision is failing, too.

It took 23 years, my wife's keen eye and her explanation for me to understand how I was teaching finishes, wrong.

I'm slew-footed.  It runs in my family.  In the 8th grade a classmate said:  "Here comes your grandmother;" and he demonstrated with his feet  pointing more east-and-west  than north-and-south.  "Here comes your mother."  Another demo.  "And here you come."

Yep.  And I've been teaching my dogs to finish lined up with my left foot, which is perpetually in impending-let-turn position.

So I've taken a full-length mirror out into the back yard, and we do finishes in front of that mirror.  When Presto! is seated at an angle to my left foot but parallel to the prime meridian, I've got a good finish.  A little victory?  I think so, but we'll see how it goes in the ring.

And then there's retrieving.  I learned early on that the little stinker won't retrieve . . . anything.

As far as nonretrieving dogs are concerned, this ain't my first rodeo.  A long time ago my first instructor, Debby Boehm, told me, "Anytime someone brings me a dog with retriever in its name I know only one thing: the dog won't retrieve."  Indeed, it took me a year to teach Cheddar, my now-retired golden retriever, to play ball (or even to tug, for that matter).

I haven't pressed the issue with Presto! until now.  In the beginning I tried throwing a tennis ball for him.  He'd chase after it then settle down and begin stripping the fuzz off of it.  So much for tennis balls.  Besides, our play style has not included my being a ball-throwing machine for him.  Our play is interactive, down and dirty, like two dogs. (Hence the lacerations.)

Now though, I've begun to serious up about the retrieving.  I don't want to work on it outside where there's a lot of room.  I want a tightly confined space.  My home office is at the end of a hallway, at the front of the house.  So I close the door, creating a dead end.  I get down on my knees about seven feet out and toss a small Kong toy toward the door.  If Presto! brings it back to hand, he gets a treat.  So far he isn't putting on weight.

But we had a breakthrough a couple of days ago.  He brought back three in a row.  Granted, I had to stretch my arms all the way out and grab the toy to keep him from dropping it.   But I want him to succeed.  By the way, one of these sessions lasts less than two minutes; I don't drill on anytrhing.

"Big deal," you say?  Maybe, but I'll take my little pleasures where I can get them.

Patience, patience, patience.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Bringing Up Presto! The Most Fundamental Fundamental

When I think about training a puppy -- or a dog of any age -- for competition obedience, my thoughts default to heeling.  Not to the exclusion of all the other important competition fundamentals like fronts and finishes and retrieving and sits and downs and stands and recalls.  But my mental picture of the performance I'm seeking features the dog in perfect heel position, head up, eyes bright . . . lovin' it.

After all, when you walk into the Novice ring or into any of the advanced A classes, what's the first thing the judge is going to get the opportunity to assess?  Heeling. That's where the judge's first opinion of a team's performance is formed.  And that first impression is bound to influence how she scores the rest of the exercises.

Heeling is also where the lion's share of the attention imprint can be applied.

So in my own training, in my students' training, heeling gets high priority.  There are many ways to teach heeling, but I've found that for me the best method to get the best results is AnneMarie Silverton's Pinpoint Heeling.  For a little primer on Pinpoint Heeling as well as a good grounding on dog obedience in general, please refer to my series titled "Attention, Attention, Attention," posted to this blog in October and November 2011.

I start my dogs and my students' dogs off-leash.  That's the way it is the very first day when we begin the puppy's little follow exercises.  Then it just sort of progresses from there.  Along the way I've discovered a few benefits -- not the least of which is the total absence of the horrible trauma that comes at the terrifying point where it's time to remove the leash and heel Fluffy.  "Oh, my God! I haven't slept for a week!" 

First of all, -- and I've found there are quite a few of like mind about this -- I regard the leash as an impediment.

Beyond that, in the traditional method of training heeling, where you are initially wedded to the leash, there are all these silly gyrations, accompanied by lots of heartburn.

I had this "shark line" on my Novice A dog, Honeybear.  The idea was that it was thin; she wasn't supposed to know it was there.  I wonder if she got a clue the first time I popped her?

The shark line was only batting practice for the part of the game that got really bizarre.  We had two leashes on the dog as we started out heeling.  At some point, in a sequence worthy of an Academy Award, with much ceremony and extraneous clicking, we'd remove one of the leashes. Now the dog thought she was leash-free, right?  Oh, I hope not! Any dog that stupid should be taught to shake, then retired to the couch.

Anyhow, less by design than by the natural progression of things, my students and I start the process off-leash.  It's only later, when we want to introduce a few corrections, that we add a leash.

So in the Pinpoint Heeling scheme of things, my students and I start the process off leash.  It's only later, when we want to introduce a few corrections, that we add a leash.

In the beginning, the treat, very visible between the thumb and index finger, is first on the dog's nose, then in tiny steps (SLOWLY!  We're talking months here.) it moves up to waist level.  And then to the attention stick.

From the tone of my earlier posts you might think all of this is a piece of cake.  Tra-la!  And away we go.  Don't you believe it; those are little drops of blood on my forehead.  If you are not a serious dog trainer but just stumbled on this blog while looking for the latest week-after-Cyber Monday specials, know that training a dog to excel in competition obedience is exceeded only by Chinese water torture.  And that's before the setbacks.

Which is where we are now in Presto!'s heeling progress.  I've got the treat about three or four inches above his nose and recently his head position and his focus deteriorated.  To cope with this revoltin' development, I want to introduce some leash corrections.  I've had the leash on him from time to time with my hands occupied this way:  The treat, Presto!'s focal point for right now, is in my left hand. The leash is in my right -- which was in arm-being-twisted position behind my back.

That's a very awkward position when I want to administer a little pop to redirect Presto!'s attention to the treat.  What's more, now I've lost the ability to use my right index finger to point to the treat as I say, "Look!"

Oh, what I'd give for a third hand right now!

Which is why I'm positive that in 10,000 years all competition obedience trainers will be born with a third hand.  How often, when training your dog, have you felt the need for an extra hand?  Evolution will take care of that.  Trouble is, none of us will be around to benefit from it.  Unless, of course, there's some way to factor in the time spent in the blind during out-of-sight sits and downs.

Way back when, in a time and place long since forgotten, someone, also long since forgotten, told me about the behind-the-back leash position.  But now it was bugging me.  So I went right to the source, the current doyenne of Pinpoint Heeling, Louise Meredith.  I told her of my current discomfort and asked her how she handles the situation.  Here's her response.

I don't like having the leash behind my back and in the right hand when I'm heeling.  It's way too awkward and I can't give a proper correction.  So when the treat is still in my left hand, above the dog's head, I have the leash in my right hand.  My right hand and arm come across the front of my body, slightly above the level of the treat that's in my left hand.  There is next to no slack in the leash and I pop up on it when the dog loses attention.  The leash is tight enough so that the dog can't forge or lag.  But if he does slightly forge or lag, I either pop back or forward, depending on whether it's a forge or a lag.  

The conclusion to that little anecdote is simple and sweet.  I've been working with the new position of hand and leash for several days now and it's just what the doctor ordered.

However, dealing with heeling focus lapses is swell, but I'm not deluding myself.  There's more to this than a simple transient heeling problem.

Yesterday Presto! turned seven months old, and he's intact.  There may be hormonal factors involved here.  If so, there's no way they'll be an excuse.  We'll train through whatever obstacles present themselves.

More to the point, I think I need to work a little harder to keep Presto! engaged when he encounters the interesting new sights, sounds and smells present in the parks where we train.

I'm working much harder to keep him Velcroed to me when we practice -- treating the entirety of each practice session as one "seamless" exercise.  Stressing "right here" as we move from exercise to play interlude to exercise.  In the early weeks of this mode he's getting leashed as we move from place to place.  He then moves at my side to whatever's next.  No drifting away to sniff.

I'm also ramping up my practice of distracted recalls on a flexi.  For me, that works best by going for short walks, allowing the dog to get distracted, then:  pop/"Presto! come!/"Good come!"/ treat.  I tell my students, "When the 18-wheeler is bearing down on your dog, you want him to turn on a dime and come to you.  So practice distracted recalls until you are blue in the face."  Right now I'm trying to get a little blue in my own face.

And of course there's a lot more play being melded into our practice sessions.

Next time we'll take up other fundamentals stuff we're working on.


Friday, November 23, 2012


Presto! flew home with me from Chicago on the day he was eight weeks old.  He started training for competition obedience the next morning, at the ripe old age of eight weeks and one day.  Little fun things, but fun things with a purpose.  Now Presto! is more than six and one-half months old.  A real dog, no longer a tiny puppy.  And across those 158 days that we've been together there's never been one day, one training session, where things have just randomly happened.  There's been a plan for each session, each fun match.  In writing, on a 4x6 card.

All of it anchored by the training philosophy I have for this puppy:  Fun, fun,fun.  Attention, attention, attention.  Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.

My pants have muddy knees, grass stains.  I get down on the ground with Presto!  On his level -- the better for him to bite me in the nose.  On the ground is where I cuddle him, pet him at the end of of an exercise, tell him how proud I am of him.  More often than not that petting session leads to roughhousing.  As I write this, I have nicks on my face and on my wrist.  To say nothing of a big swollen bruise on the bone just above my right eye where he nailed me yesterday.  I've learned to leave my glasses behind when we train.

Or maybe we tug.  With a leash or a rope toy or the Cynde toy.  What's a Cynde toy?  Well, in everyone else's world it's called an "udder toy."  It has something  to do with milking cows; I have no idea what.  Those of us in competition obedience have found its highest and best use.  I couldn't imagine that a dog would like it until Cynde Leshin gave it to me, hence the name.  Presto! loves his Cynde toy.

I haven't said anything about playing ball, have I?  That's because we don't.  Presto! doesn't retrieve.  So far.  We'll have to deal with that shortly.  But for now that's just fine with me.  I don't want our play style to feature me as a ball-throwing machine.  That's not really interactive.  I want our play to be more hands-on, me-centered, down and dirty.  And it is.    In our training group, we have a saying:  "If you bleed, it's been a good training session."

Attention?  I've learned you can never have enough attention, enough focus.  Once upon a time when I thought of attention I pictured the dog looking up at me when we heeled.  Nothing more.  But over time I've learned -- the hard way! -- there's so much more to attention.

Presto! started little follow exercises the morning after we flew in from Chicago.  I'm teaching the pinpoint heeling method.  Right now my little guy has graduated to my holding the treat in line with the seam of my pants and about four inches above his nose.

I tell my students, "Give him the treat when the dog is in perfect heel position, head is up and all four feet are on the ground."  Oh yeah!  Easy for me to say, but we're trying. 

A long time ago, when Honeybear and I were just starting out with Debby Boehm, we did a lot of stationary attention.  I haven't done that with my last three dogs, but I've added it into Presto!'s practice repertoire.  I'm using the attention stick on the belt.  Presto! sits in heel position and looks at the treat on the end of the stick for increasing amounts of time.  Then, "Get it!" and he jumps for the treat.  For the last several days I haven't had to fend him off before it's time to get it. (Folks, if I can teach this loaded gun of a dog to wait, you can teach your dog to wait.)  Woohoo!

It took much too long, but I've learned the critical importance of holding the dog's attention between exercises.  We practice, "Right here," a lot as we move from exercise to exercise.  Control!

The other day a friend who has been in border collies for 30 years said, "Presto! has natural attention."  Sure he does . . . until somehing in the environment becomes more interesting than I am.  I'm taking nothing for granted.  I'm demanding attention when we're training.

So what I want is for Presto! to remain engaged the whole time we're training.  But what I see so often being ignored by other trainers is that attention should be a two-way street. You want your dog's undivided attention; shouldn't you reciprocate?

I'll spare you the rant about training sessions deteriorating into a coffee klatch.  Just one example about what all too often goes on in the AKC ring.  It's the handler having a pleasant conversation with the judge while rubbing up the scent article.  Meanwhile the dog is gawking at God knows what outside the ring.  Totally unfocused.

Points one and two here are closely related.  If training is fun for the dog, if there's a generous amount of play incorporated into the training session, Fluffy is going to want to stay engaged.

Through these early weeks, Presto has been learning lots of fundamentals.  Which we'll talk about in the next post.


Thursday, November 15, 2012


HELP!  I'm trapped here with a six-month-old border collie, and I don't know where to hide.

Many years ago there was a sweatshirt that said, "Border Collie:  Everything you've ever heard is true."  My friends, you better believe it.  And you probably haven't heard the half of it.

Presto is six months, two weeks and one day old.  He's 17 inches at the withers and he weighs 32 pounds.  He adds breadth and depth to phrases like "hell on wheels" and  "a piece of work" and  "a handful"  and "a holy terror."

At the same time, though, he has certain sterling qualities which should be recognized and appreciated.

Presto!'s cup (?) runneth over with love.  When Presto! was still just a little guy, the owner of Barbara's company dropped by for lunch.  My little lover crawled up his chest . . . and peed on his shirt.

Presto! is a lap dog.  Sit down in a chair at your own risk.  BAM! He comes out of nowhere, takes off five feet out, and his butt hits your lap at the same instant his tongue hits your face.  God help you if you were holding a cup of coffee.

Presto! is extraordinarily focused.  On the dining room table and the kitchen counter.  His mission in his young life is that not one unattended morsel -- of anybody's anything -- escapes.  So what if now and then the peace is shattered by shards of china crashing around the room?

Presto! is playful.  Cheddar is my 10-year-old retired golden retriever competition obedience dog.  And Presto!'s canine best friend.  They would roughhouse 24 hours a day if I didn't break it up.  Trouble is, Presto! has now reached the age and the size where he can maul Cheddar.  Did you know that you can sink your teeth into the forehead skin of a golden, directly above and between the eyes?  And get a good enough hold to pull the golden through the house.  Picture one of those guys who fastens a chain to the front bumper of an 18-wheeler, holds the other end in his teeth and pulls the big truck down the street.  That's Presto! dragging Cheddar through the house.  Do you wonder why I step in and break it up?

Cheddar seems to love it.  He may run to one of us for protection from time to time, but he goes right back for more.  Which is why we've taken to calling him Saint Cheddar.

Did I mention that Presto! likes to play?  But it's a whole different game with Bravo!, my also-retired rescue border collie  (the most titled obedience dog in the history of Arizona Border Collie Rescue). Bravo! took charge of the ascendance/submission relationship early on.  From day one, Presto! knew Bravo! was putting up with no crap.  The relationship has developed slowly.  Now, at six months, Bravo! is Presto!'s mentor.  Presto! follows Bravo! around and does what he does. But it's their play where the relationship has really blossomed. (Blossomed? Well, sort of like a mushroom cloud.)

It's best described as "war games."  Bravo! usually sets it off.  And there are "really weird" (that's Barbara speaking) things that trigger Bravo!  If I go through the house changing the water bowls.  If I shake pills from a bottle.  If I carry the scent articles throught the house.  Those triggers send Bravo! into a cataclysm of spinning and roaring, always with a toy in his mouth.  At first that frightened Presto!  He hung back.  Nowadays he participates full bore, peak decibels -- lunging at the spinning, roaring Bravo! -- barking growling.

It's like World War l l l .  You'd think they're killing each other.  Or that we're training pit bulls in the living room.  So far the neighbors haven't called the cops.

Presto! is a pain in the ass.  Barbara again.  Recently, after she had shooed Presto! away from the kitchen counter for the umpteenth time in a five-minute period, she declared:  "Border collies are so cute when they're little, and they're so great after they grow up.  In the middle they're a pain in the ass."

Have I mentioned that we love Presto! like crazy?

* * *

Next time we'll take a snapshot of where the little pain in the ass and I are in our competition obedience training here at six months and counting.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Why Presto! Won't Be Neutered, Part 2

For information on the authors of the studies cited here as well as the key to the footnotes, see Part 1 of this two-part series (Oct. 12)

A dog's sex hormones have roles well beyond sex.  For instance, they are essential to timely closure of the growth plates.  Deprive the dog of those hormones and the bones continue to grow, often with abnormal results.  You can spot dogs that have been neutered or spayed too early -- that is, before puberty -- because they have longer than normal legs, often narrower than normal skulls.

Writing in her influential -- but unfortunately not influential enough -- 2005 article, "Early Spay-Neuter Considerations for the Canine Athlete," Chris Zink pointed out that, "This abnormal growth results in significant alterations in body proportions and particularly the length (and therefore weights) of certain bones relative to others."

She gave the following example:

. . . if the femur has achieved its genetically determined normal length at eight months when a dog gets spayed or neutered, but the tibia, which normally stops growing at 12 to 14 months of age, continues to grow, then an abnormal angle may develop at the stifle.  In addition, with the extra growth, the lower leg becomes heavier (because it's longer), causing increased stresses on the cranial cruciate ligament.  These structural alterations may be the reason why at least one recent study has shown that spayed and neutered dogs have a higher incidence of CCL rupture. (3)

Zink goes on to cite another study that demonstrated that dogs spayed or neutered early were in significantly more danger of hip dysplasia than those who had the surgery later.

So I'm supposed to screw around with hormones that are important in Presto!'s growth and development in the name of . . .   In the name of exactly what?  Oh, something called "standard protocol."

* * *

More recently (2010), Parvene Farhoody, a graduate student at Hunter College (in the City College of New York system) published, with thesis advisor Chris Zink, a masters thesis entitled "Behavioral and Physical Effects of Spaying and Neutering Domestic Dogs (Canis familiaris)."  By the way, Farhoody is a well-regarded animal behavior consultant in New York City, so she brings a certain weltanschauung to the project.

Farhoody collected information on seven behavioral characteristics from 10,839 dogs -- the largest sample ever used to study behavior in dogs.  The tool she used is a 101-question survey called the Canine Behavior and Resrarch Questionnaire.  She points out that C-BARQ (sorry, guys) is a qualitative behavior assessment instrument created by James Serpell and his colleagues at the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania.  At the time her thesis was accepted C-BARQ was the only behavioral assessment instrument that had been peer-reviewed and found to be reliable and valid.

Read Farhoody's study and more reasons not to neuter your canine athlete come cascading down upon you.  (Note that the reasons not to spay are equally compelling but, as I said in Part 1, these posts are male-oriented.)  Farhoody's thesis summary may be accessed at .

Here are a few of the significant things she found:

     -- There was a significantly higher aggression score in neutered dogs as compared to intact dogs regardless of the age at which the dogs were neutered.
     -- There was a significant increase in fear, anxiety and excitability scores in neutered dogs as compared to intact dogs regardless of the age at which the dogs were neutered.
     -- There were significant correlations between neutering and decreases in trainability and responsiveness to cues.

Overall, Farhoody says in her summary, "the trend seen in all these behavioral data was that the earlier the dog was neutered the more negative the effect on the behavior."

* * *

Here's my bottom line.  God gave Presto! balls.  They produce hormones which play important roles in his growth and development, both physical and mental.  Why on earth should I take them away from him?  Add to that the cancer-related culpability of neutering which the data suggest (see Part 1).

In our case I see it as a no-brainer; Presto! won't be neutered.

Now then, many who have read these two posts have sharply contrary points of view, I'm sure.  Following each post there is a place for comments.  Well-documented rebuttals are invited and will be welcomed in the comments space.  If you email your rebuttal directly to me, more than likely the hundreds who read this blog will never see it,


Friday, October 12, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Why Presto Won't Be Neutered, Part 1

Down through more than five decades of marriage, Barbara and I have shared our home with ten animals -- seven dogs and three cats.  None has remained intact.  Until now.

This post and the next will present what I believe is a compelling case in support of my decision not to neuter Presto!

I could simply say, "Not so fast!  I have here an extraordinary puppy out of an extraordinary litter, bred by one of America's premier breeders of border collies.  I could say that while presently I have no plans to breed Presto! I'm reluctant to do something that could not be reversed at a later date.  I could say that and it would seem sufficient.  But it would skirt the real issues here, the guts of what has driven this decision:  a ton of documentation that neutering is just plain bad for the dog.

* * *

The common wisdom across the past several decades is that unless you plan to breed your dog you have him/her neutered/spayed before six months of age.  Early spay-neuter has been driven by the overwhelming overpopulation of dogs, resulting in the horrendous situation facing American shelters.

Shelters have embraced the concept of very early neutering of puppies and kittens before adoption as one step toward pre-empting overpopulation.  Veterinarians (not unmindful of the revenue stream involved) took up the cause with marketing and client education featuring messages about the pet population explosion as well as avoidance of various types of cancer.

However -- HOWEVER! -- there is mounting epidemiological evidence that early spaying/neutering triggers serious orthopedic, behavioral, immunologic and oncologic issues.

Right here I'm shifting the emphasis of this post to neutering.  There is an equal amount of evidence to support second thoughts about hurrying pell mell into early spaying (or spaying at all).  But this is about Presto!  And Presto! is a male, so we'll focus on neutering.

* * *

Everything that follows in these two posts is meticulously documented by references that can be found in peer-reviewed veterinary medical literature.  Rather than weigh these posts down with lengthy lists of references, I'm providing links to the sources, which are:

Alice Villalobos, DVM  is president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics.  The comments I've included here appeared in the December 2008 issue of Veterinary Practice News, in an article titled "Is Early Neutering Hurting Pets?"

M.Christine Zink,DVM,PhD,DAVCP has long been a go-to person in care of the canine athlete.  Several of her books (see the link) are classics on the topics they cover. She is professor and director of the department of molecular and comparative pathobiology as well as a professor in the department of pathology and molecular microbiology and immunology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University.  I've referred extensively to her 2005 publication titled "Early Spay-Neuter Considerations for the Canine Athlete."  That article may be accessed at  Where I've included a number in parentheses, that number refers to a footnote in her article.

Parvene Farhoody, a graduate student at Hunter College (of the City College of New York) completed a masters thesis (with Chris Zink as her advisor) in May 2010.  It was titled "Behavioral and Physical Effects of Spaying and Neutering Domestic Dogs. (Canis familiaris).  Her summary of the thesis may also be accessed at

* * *

It begins with cancer. Early on, Alice Villalobos, who conducts an oncology-heavy practice in Woodland Hills, California, was a strong advocate of early spay-neuter.  But by 2008 the weight of evidence to the contraty caused her to write, "It's earth-shattering to consider that some of the cancers we have been battling may have been enhanced by early neutering instead of the reverse."

She points to a study (also cited by Zink) by Ware (6) who found a 2.4 times greater risk of hemangiosarcoma in neutered dogs as compared to intact males.

Many veterinarians recommend neutering as a way to reduce prostate cancer.  However, Villalobos says, "We need to re-examine the common belief that neutering dogs helps reduce prostate cancer.  She points to a 1987 study (9) which reported that neutering provides no relief from prostate cancer.

So . . . I should castrate Presto! to obtain questionable protection from prostate cancer while in the process setting him up for increased risk of hemangiosarcoma.

Zink cites a study (7) of 3,218 dogs which concluded that those who were neutered before they were one year old had a significantly greater risk of developing bone cancer.  Then she underscores her point by citing yet another study that showed that neutered dogs had a two-fold higher risk of bone cancer.

Those are the highlights of the neutering/cancer story.  Moving right along . . .

Barbara has had three toy or miniature poodles.  All three had been spayed early and all three had urinary incontinence -- they leaked.  All three were on phenylpropanolamine for the rest of their lives.  "Yep," the respective vets said,  "early spaying can cause that."  Until I was researching this topic, I didn't know that neutering may also cause urinary sphincter incontinence in males. (13)

A survey done by the Golden Retriever Club of America indicated that spayed or neutered golden retrievers were more likely to develop hypothyroidism. (2)  A finding that was corroborated by Panciera. (14)

Finally, Howe et al have demonstrated that infectious diseases are more common in dogs that have been spayed or neutered at 24 weeks or less. (15)

* * *

As they say in the infomercials, "BUT WAIT!!!  THERE'S MORE!!!"

In the next post we'll look at the negative effects neutering has on growth and development.


Friday, September 28, 2012


Last Saturday evening, three days past his five-month birthday, Presto! was entered in his first fun match.  I had him in two rings, Open and Utility.  Novice can come later.

The rings I had him entered in and what we did when we got in there reflected how I've trained him so far.  His training began the morning after we flew in from Chicago.  He was eight weeks and one day old when he had his first lesson.  His early training has focused on what I call "little fun things."  Things where he can move around, run, be upbeat.  The static stuff will come later.

We started doing little follow exercises.  First with Presto! in front of me, following a treat held in both hands as I moved backward.  Then little figure eights between and around my legs.  Eventually he moved to my left side (not focused on heel position, just following the treat between the thumb and forefinger of my left hand).  We went in straight lines and big circles left and right..

Those circles gradually diminished and now, three months into his training, they've become a loose figure eight.  The little follows have become "heeling," and turns have been added.

So on Saturday evening -- on leash and with the treat still close to his nose -- Presto! did a little bit of heeling and a figure eight in the Open ring.

Next I had him twist and spin.  Then we did what I call "laterals."  I regard the laterals as one of the most important things we do, which is why we started them on day one when Presto! was a tiny puppy.  I hold the treat in both hands, low in front of me, and sidestep a few steps to the left and to the right.  Presto! moves laterally with me.  I want him to (a) know he has a rear end and (b) develop good lateral movement on his back legs.  So I've incorporated that exercise into his development from the very beginning.  The result is his back end moves nicely and no part of his body lags as we move laterally.

Next I had the judge hold him about six feet out while I called him to front three times -- first straight in, then with my body (and feet) cocked first to the left and then to the right.  He almost always straightens himself out when I'm cocked to the left (his right).  He's still finding it a little more difficult to correct when my feet are cocked to my right (his left).  In my competition obedience career, fronts have always been the bane of my existence.  I'm hoping to nip that in the bud with Presto!

We ended our Open appearance with "Where's Presto!?" (a fun game I learned from Louise Meredith a long time ago).  The judge holds Presto! while I run to the far end of the ring, lie on my stomach, grip a treat protruding from my mouth, call, "Where's Presto!?" and quickly bury my face in my arms.  The judge releases the dog who runs to me, burrows under my arm and gets the treat. Presto! generally stays there long enough to get in a few good face licks.

Then we tugged out of the ring on the leash.  Plenty of quiet praise and petting had taken place between the exercises.

We began Utility with another short burst of what now passes for heeling, this time off leash.

After a quick series of weaves around my legs, it was time for go-outs.  Presto! has been doing go-outs to a target inside my PVC box (See my Aug. 22, 2011 post, The Many Uses of the PVC Box) since his ninth week. I kneel behind the sitting dog, my arms around his chest so he has to leap out to get going.  Then,"Away!"  He tears out toward the target.  I say, "Get it!"  Then immediately, "Presto! come!"  He grabs the treat from the target, spins and races back to jump for the treat I'm holding up.

The box remained in the ring for what I call "box work."  His sits, downs and stands have been taught (again from day one) in the PVC box, up front where the slightly raised bar discourages forward movement.  I'd like to think we won't lose points for traveling during the signal exercise.

Again, we tugged out of the ring.

Presto!'s first venture into competition obedience rings went extremely well. Much better than I expected considering there were three rings going simultaneously in a smaller-than-desirable space.  And the entry totalled 88.  Amid all that commotion, Presto! was focused 95 percent of the time.

I guess the highlight of the evening for Presto! was all the attention he got outside the ring.  Here's this ultra-friendly, cute-as-a-button, five-month-old border collie.  You better believe Presto! got to lick a few faces last Saturday evening.

Now we're starting to teach some Novice stuff.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! The Socialization/Infection Puzzlement

"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," said Mindy, a member of the Dog Daze Gang, our summer Sunday morning training group.  Alice the veterinarian nodded agreement.

The conversation was about exposing young puppies to the world . . . and to infection.

The herding breeds, if not well socialized at a very young age, can go through life shy, timid, fearful. I know about that all too well.  In the early 70s, while we still lived in Cincinnati, I bought a Sheltie puppy. From a reputable breeder.  Back then the only thing I really knew about dogs was that I liked them.  But we had a conscientious vet, and he told us how important it would be to get Ginger to lots of public places, around lots of people and dogs.

Lord knows we tried.  We took her on walks, to parks, to neighbors' houses.  But Ginger lived her life painfully shy and fearful.  She preferred to spend her days behind a chair in a distant part of the house.  I tied her to my desk while I was working there, hoping that steady presence would help her bond with me.  In vain.  For a while I got her to play ball in a carpeted hallway.  But one night the tennis ball bounced off her nose and she never played ball again.

The doorbell would ring.  Ginger would run to the door and bark.  As soon as we opened the door she would run under the bed and poop there.

All that has been on my mind as I have wrestled with the issue of socializing Presto! versus protecting him from infection.

Presto! was seen by Dr. Chuck Toben, our veterinarian of nearly a quarter century, the afternoon after I brought him in from Chicago.  Presto was eight weeks and one day old.  As he has done with every puppy I've carried in there, Dr. Toben cautioned me not to take Presto!  into city parks or other places frequented by dogs until he had received all of his shots.

I heartily agreed.  The risk was more than I was willing to take.  But I had a plan.

First of all, I knew that Presto! and his littermates had been exceptionally well socialized before they went to their forever homes.  Those puppies had been handled, played with, cuddled and loved by a small army of students and friends of the Inman family (the Wildfire breeders).  I wasn't done at the American Airlines ticket counter yet when I found out that Presto! loves everybody.  While those in line behind us shuffled impatiently, Presto! met, licked and was cuddled by everyone working behind that counter.  So I was confident about that phase of his socialization.

Here at home I sent out an email to select obedience friends and close neighbors -- people I knew would come from infection-free homes.  Presto! would be receiving visitors, I announced, and they and their dogs were invited.  Quite a few came and the visitation program went -- well, in at least one case, swimmingly.

The owner of Barbara's company, Encore Realty, came for lunch.  Thank God Bob is only DNA short of being family.  Bob picked Presto! up.  The puppy was hysterically happy to see him . . . and dribbled down the front of Bob's shirt.

Two weeks later Bob had fun with the episode when he brought it up at a staff meeting.  And on that morning, in an economy that is still sluggish, in that real estate office a rollicking good time was had by all.  Courtesy of my little pheenom.

Originally I had planned to take Presto! to a fun match in Flagstaff right after he had his third shot at 16 weeks.  But Chuck Toben, whose conservative approach has served us well across 24 years, 3 cats and 8 dogs, wanted to do one more inoculation before I turned Presto! loose in the competition obedience world.

OK.  But I was concerned that there was a big hole in my latter-day socialization plan.  Presto! had, in fact, been a social butterfly during the past few weeks.  But all that schmoozing and roughhousing and dribbling  had been done on his own turf (and on Bob's shirt).

So at 17 weeks we ventured out.  Not to the public parks and places like PetSmart but to "safe" but well-trafficed destinations such as AJs (an upscale grocery five minutes from home), Starbucks and eventually The Home Depot.

How would Presto! respond when at 17 weeks he encountered a world he didn't even know existed?  Our first -- and so far only! -- challenge came before we even got out of our own driveway.  The American flag in the front yard across the street was flapping in the breeze.  That spooked my little guy, and it took him about five minutes to get over it.

Outside AJs and Starbucks he met new friends who gave him a treat and petted him.  Later we heeled and wound up our visit by tugging on the leash.

On our first visit to The Home Depot we just heeled around, met new friends and got acquainted with carts -- normal size and those big ones -- rolling toward the parking lot.  Of course they had emerged from the big automatic doors that also didn't faze Presto!  And the big diesel trucks leaving the lot a scant 20 feet from us?  They evoked a two-second startle response, then curiosity.

By the second visit we were heeling in the busy, noisy area where contractors load their trucks shortly after dawn.  A bit distracting, but not frightening.  (I wish I could say that about the thunder that's been rolling through here during the monsoon season.)

The verdict:  Flapping flags aside, this dog has no fear.  On the 22nd of September he'll do two rings in a fun match.  We'll see how that goes.  So far, so good.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Box Work: The Turn & Sit

In my last installment on this subject I mentioned that from time to time I'm using a flexi as I send Presto! -- as if shot from a gun -- on his go-outs.  The flexi, which he's been on every day as he goes about pottying in the backyard, doesn't seem to faze him.  I really don't think he knows it's there.

I've gotten him flexi-comfortable because the flexi will be important in teaching the turn and sit.  But not right in the beginning.

Initially I'll put the flexi aside and we'll go back to our original go-outs starting position, two feet in front of the closed end of the PVC box.  With the treat on the target, I'll put my hand in his collar and walk him out to the target, just as I did when I was orienting him to where the target would be. As I go, I'll be repeating my send-away command, "Away! Away!"  I won't run him out there, we'll walk.  I don't want it to all be a blur; I want him to have time to think about what he's doing.  Just short of the target I'll turn him and sit him.  As I turn him, I'll say, "Presto! sit!"  And I'll give him a treat from my hand.  Very important:  As I turn him and sit him -- or later when he turns and sits on his own -- he never gets the treat from the target.  It must always come from your hand.

It's important that as I march Presto! out to the target/treat, then turn him and sit him, that I always say, the commands:  "Away!" and then, "Presto! sit!"  I want to be imbedding those commands in his mind, helping him associate those words with the physical responses they should trigger.

I'm expecting that in the beginning Presto! may be a little bit difficult to turn and sit.  Of course the good news is that he's not a mastiff or a great Dane.  I'll practice with my hand in his collar until he turns easily and plants.  As I praise him and give him a treat each time he does it, it should come fairly quickly.

Once he's got it, every so often we'll do a go-out where I say, "Get it!" and he goes all the way out to the target, snarfs down the treat, then turns and runs back to me for another goodie.  Note that in this method the dog never runs out, gets the treat, then turns and sits. I'm afraid that will result in searching behavior (sniffing around prior to sitting) and significant points lost.


Eventually -- many months out -- we'll reach the differentiation stage..  And that's the hard part.

Here's what I'm seeking in terms of a well-executed go-out.  I want Presto! to run out there straight as an arrow (which is the part he's been practicing since he was nine weeks old). Then I want him to do a tight turn and sit.  That's why we've been using the PVC box to teach turn and sits.

Swell.  But I also want him to keep going until I tell him to turn and sit.  He must not anticipate.  Must not start thinking,  Ah, I know what comes next; I'll turn and sit now.  That's one of the major problems associated with the directed jumping exercise.  Which is why Presto! and I will spend a year, maybe more, working on differentiation.

To begin that phase, we'll move in close to the box again, about five to seven feet in front of the raised bar.  Presto! is on the flexi and will be for months.  I'll send him, say, "Get it!" and let him get the treat and return to me.  OR, I'll send him, say, "Presto! sit!" and pop him into a sit just short of the treat.  Remember, he must not turn round and steal the treat off the target.  Instead, I'll hustle out there, praise and reward him.

Now comes the part that works the magic (I hope).  I'm going to mix it up, calling, "Get it!" and, "Sit" randomly so that Presto! never knows what I'm going to tell him to do.  This is hard for him so he's listening with all the attention he can muster.

Slowly -- very slowly -- I'll increase the distance.  That's good news; now I'll have more time to think and react.  By this time, hundreds of hours into Presto!'s training, I'll know his every thought.  When I send him away, I'll know what he's going to do, and I'll command the opposite.  If his body language tells me he's going to turn and sit, I'll call, "Get it!" and send him on for the treat.  And vice versa.  Many months out I'll be able to practice this without the flexi . . . using gentle corrections if Presto! responds counter to my command.

Looking way ahead -- and we're talking many months here -- when Presto! is doing really well, it'll be time to begin removing the PVC box, one piece at a time.  I already know Presto! is "right-handed."  Meaning he always turns to the right when returning to me.  So first I'll remove the bar on the left-hand side of the box (as I face it).  It's no longer playing a significant role.  Sometime later I'll take away the piece on the other side, the side he turns to, leaving only the front barrier.  Eventually that goes too, leaving only the target and the treat.  I'll eventually fade those.

There's more to teaching go-outs -- training for the occasional ring where there's no center pole, correcting crooked go-outs, reorienting the dog who suddenly begins taking the jump on the way out.  But this series of posts is about the use of the PVC box, so I'll wait and write about those Excedrin headaches when Presto! and I encounter them.  And we will.



Thursday, August 23, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Box Work: Itty-Bitty Go-Outs

In last week's post, I discussed the use of the PVC box in teaching Presto! the down, the sit and the stand.  I also use the box to teach the go-outs (send away) part of the directed jumping exercise.

Presto! has been practicing go-outs since he was in his tenth week.  He has been doing little sits/downs/stands in the box almost since the day he joined our household, so he is comfortable in "his" box.  He thinks it's a fun place to be; he gets to do hands-on things with me and he gets treats.

You have to understand that I'm 6'5" and Presto! was still a really little guy when we started this, so a lot of the handling I'll describe here was done on my knees.

I put a target dead center in the back of the box, inside the box.  Presto!'s target was a white lid, three inches in diameter.  (Actually a plastic lid that would fit an opened can of Hill's Science Diet dog food.  I had elevated that lid to its highest and best use.)  I put the lid on the ground, topside up.  I want the treat to be perched on top of the lid, not down inside.  In the beginning I had a white pole stuck in the ground a few inches behind the target, just outside the box.  Shortly I'll begin putting a couple of baby gates out there from time to time, alternating with the pole. The stanchion supporting the baby gates will take the place of the pole.  Right from day one I want my little guy to associate that visual cue with the word "straight."

Because Presto! was so young, he had not learned to sit and wait while I placed the treat on the target.  (Believe me when I tell you that border collies are not born with the word "wait" as an intrinsic part of their vocabularies.)  So I'm practicing go-outs when my wife Barbara is available to place the treat on the target.  In the beginning she pointed to the treat to get Presto!'s attention focused.  But by the second session he knew exactly what he was aiming for.

We started a couple of feet in front of the box.  The target and the pole were at the far end.  The closed end was toward us; I wanted Presto! to get comfortable jumping that raised bar on the way in.  For orientation purposes I put my hand in Presto!'s collar and -- Oh, my achin' back! -- walked him out to the target a few times.

Then I started sending him on his own.  I kneeled down behind him, both of us centered in front of the box.  Presto! watched while Barbara placed the treat on the target.  Then, holding him with my left arm around his chest, I extended my right arm straight out next to his face while saying, "Go-outs, Presto!, straight, straight."  (I know, I know, it should be my left arm giving the line, but at this point it's easier to hold him with my left arm/hand.  Otherwise I'm in a crossed-arms position.  And I don't think it makes a bit of difference at this point.)

At this very early stage I don't care whether Presto! is sitting or not as we set up for a go-out.  What I do care about, and what tells me a lot and makes me very happy, is that Presto! is straining to go.  Hallelujah!

Then, in rapid succession, I say, "Away! (he tears out to the target), "Get it!" (he grabs the treat), "Presto! come!" (he comes blazing back and jumps for the treat I'm holding about 18 inches off the ground.) 

All I want right now is for go-outs to become woven into the fabric of Presto!'s life.  Later we won't have to work through the jarring transition that's necessary when a dog has been taught to stay close and look at you, then suddenly has to learn to run away from you, do it rapidly and go in a straight line.

For a long time we'll be doing only what I have described above -- mostly leash-free but occasionally on a flexi.  And at slowly increasing distances.  Right now Presto!'s itty-bitty go-outs are about 20 feet.

Presto! and I aren't even thinking about the turn and sit.  But you and I will . . . in the next post.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Box Work: Sit/Down/Stand

Sometimes I think there should be background music while the Utility class is in session . . . a little traveling music.

Entering the cardiac arrest phase of the signal exercise, Hortense stands Fluffy and heads toward the other end of the ring.  Fluffy creeps forward while Hortense's back is turned.

Hortense gives the drop signal.  In the process of going down (assuming, of course, that she doesn't go into a sit and blow the whole thing) Fluffy moves two steps closer to Hortense. 

Now the sit.  Fluffy's conversion from the down to the sit involves moving everything forward.  By the time Hortense gets ready to signal Fluffy to come, Fluffy is probably two or three points closer to the other end of the ring than she was when Hortense left her on a stand.

A few minutes later it's time for the directed jumping exercise.  Fluffy goes flying out there, executes a turn that doubles as a tour of the far end of the ring, walks about three steps forward and sits.  Then repeats the whole performance on the second go-out.

All of which explains why I teach the sit, the down, the stand and the go-outs in a PVC box.  And why Presto! began his "box work" when he was nine weeks old.

See my post of August 22, 2011, "The Many Uses of the PVC Box," for more on how the box is constructed and used.  Note that the box should be only slightly wider than the dog.  But that only matters when teaching a tight turn and sit. In the photo that accompanies this post -- taken several weeks ago when Presto! was slightly more than nine weeks old -- he's working in a much larger box, one I had from earlier dogs.  By the time we incorporate the turn and sit, many months hence, he will have grown to fit the box.

The first step was to teach Presto! to love his box.  That took one brief session.  I put the box on the ground, said, "Get in your box,"  lured him into it with a treat, said, "Good box!"  and gave him the treat.  Pretty soon, whenever the box hit the ground he ran into it, looked at me, expected and received his treat.  Now, several weeks later, I say, "Should we do box work?"  and he runs to where the box is leaning against the wall on the back porch.  Everything about him says, "Hurry up!"

Unquestionably my strongest motivation for starting box work almost as soon as I got the puppy was to teach the "concertina" (foldback) down at the dawn of his experience.  Let a dog get into the habit of going through a sit enroute to his down and you're flirting with multiple NQ's when Rover gets to the sit, stops there and thinks he's completed the exercise.

All the sit/stand/down execises are taught at the closed end of the box, up close to the raised bar.  (The one in the picture is raised 3.4 inches.) That bar effectively inhibits Presto! from traveling forward as we practice these exercises.  So he has never even thought of creeping forward on any of these position changes.

At a very early age he's forming habits I'm confident will reduce unnecessary loss of points during his competition obedience career.  And he loves it.

Let's leave discussion of box work's role in teaching go-outs until my next post, "Box Work:  Go-Outs."


Thursday, August 9, 2012


Presto! hadn't been in his new home nine hours before he had his first little lesson.  Right now, at 14 weeks, he enjoys three five-minute lessons a day.  We're rotating through 25 little "exercises." 

Fundamental to everything I'm doing with him are these two absolutes:

Everything we do must be fun. My first instructor, Debby Boehm -- the person who took me from bumbling neophyte to (bumbling) OTCH handler -- told her students, "If first you get want-to, all else will follow."

Think about it.  In your lifetime, what's been easier to learn, something you loved doing or something you hated but had to master?

When I say, "Should we go practice?"  Presto! can't contain himself.  Each training session consists of five or six exercises.  He can't wait to get into position to begin each exercise.  Between exercises, he sticks to me like glue, head up, eyes riveted on me: "What're we gonna do next?"  And the learning curve has gone right through the roof.

I train exclusively on a buckle collar.  Presto! will never see a prong collar.  And God knows he'll never see an electric collar.  Both are the tools of weakness.  Would I change my mind if I had a Rottweiler?  Absolutely not!  It's about want-to,  not about , "By God, you have to!"

Everything we do is laying the foundation for the exercises that will be so important later.  The
first thing Presto! ever did here, training-wise, was little follow exercises. Those were preliminary, preparatory, precursors to preludes and preambles to heeling.  In other words, he didn't know he was starting to learn to heel; he only knew he was having a blast (for a grand total of 30 seconds).  He's still having a blast, but now, at 14 weeks, he quickly pops into position when it's time to heel.  He does a nice tight about turn. (I didn't teach that, it just happened one day.)  And when I halt he sits at my side.

Oh, and all this is off leash.  We won't have any heartburn later about taking the leash off -- he's been off leash since he was eight weeks old.  However, recently I've disciplined myself to put the leash on about a third of the time. We're going to need that in Novice.

There's all this talk (quite valid) about the difficulty in teaching go-outs.  "We've put so much effort into teaching the dog to be at our side, to be focused on us," we say, "then suddenly we want him to run away from us, and in a straight line to boot. That's so hard for the dog!"

Presto started doing little go-outs when he was nine weeks old.  He gets to run out to a target, get a treat, then run back and jump for another treat.  He loves it.  He'll grow up never knowing about the difficult transition.

More about go-outs and sits and stands and downs, all of which I teach in a PVC box, in my next post, entitled "Box Work."


Friday, July 27, 2012


"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," said Mindy Masch.  It was during our Dog Daze training group several weeks ago. We get together at the crack of dawn on summer Sunday mornings.  We know a shady park, and that's where we train.

Mindy was commenting on the absence of my nine-week-old border collie puppy, Presto! There was no way I was going to bring the little guy out to a city park and put him down on the ground. 

That's the dilemma -- the Catch-22 -- we face with our young obedience-ring-bound puppies.  We weigh the benefits to be derived from being in a competition obedience environment -- the ring, the handlers, a surrogate judge, the other dogs -- versus the threat of possible infection lurking there.

You hear a lot about parvo around here, particularly in the spring and fall.  "It's so easy to transmit infection," says Chuck Toben, our vet for nearly a quarter of a century.  "A parvo-infected dog can shed and another dog can pick up the disease from the hair that falls to the ground."

Fortunately, Presto!'s litter was super-socialized.  Mike and Maureen Inman -- the people who are Wildfire -- saw to that.  Maureen teaches competition obedience, and her students would pop in and play with the puppies.  Mike told me he was staying home on his vacation to take care of (read play with) the puppies.  Jessica, their nine-year-old daughter, had a steady stream of friends coming in and out.  A couple of weeks before I picked up Presto! in Chicago Jessica hosted a sleepover.  It's safe to say the puppies were the featured attraction.

Nevertheless, I didn't want Presto!'s socialization to end when he became part of our household.

Twice, Barbara has brought him to Dog Daze for cameo appearances lasting about 30 minutes. He has never touched the ground.  When he wasn't in someone's arms, licking faces and being oohed and aahed over, he was in a crate which in turn was sitting on a thick rug.

And I've been inviting people -- friends and neighbors that I know come from infection-free environments -- to come to our house, meet Presto! and play with him.  One brought her six-month-old (dog friendly) border  collie puppy.  We turned them loose in the backyard and for a few minutes it was gangbusters.  Given that it was a 107-degree Sunday afternoon, we had to shut that little circus down after about five minutes.  Which was okay:  a tired border collie is a good border collie.

Presto! will get his third immunization shot on August 20.  The following Sunday there's a match in Flagstaff.  That'll be his coming out party.  Not that he'll be going into the ring  But he'll be fully present in a simulated trial environment for the first time.  He'll walk around, visit, get petted.  And he'll practice, outside the ring, a series of little puppy exercises that up until that time had been confined to the backyard.

At which point our Catch-22 will be history and it'll be time to run with the Big Dogs.


Saturday, July 21, 2012


The woman's dog is running loose among the setups at the obedience trial.  Oops! he just peed on a tent pole.  Turning inside out with embarrassment and apologies, the woman explains, "But he won't potty unless he's off leash."  Lady, please!  Train your dog.

So Presto! is making a substantial number of his forays into the backyard on a flexi.  The better to get that habit pattern established right now, just short of 12 weeks.  Also, the better to keep my little dirt-eating machine on the grass and away from the flower beds.  Particularly here in the valley fever capital of the world.

So much to teach.  And all at once, or so it seems.

Presto! was introduced to a children's toothbrush the first morning he was in the house -- at 8 weeks and one day.  The first couple of days he just played with it.  Now we brush.  Not that there's much there to brush, and brushing all those little needles called baby teeth isn't very significant.  But  Presto! doesn't fight the toothbrush.  A habit has been established that will serve us well for his lifetime.

Fortunately Presto!'s litter (four girls and four boys) was exposed to many people on a daily basis -- Maureen Inman's (Wildfire) students, her daughter's friends, etc.  So my little guy is used to being handled all over.  He loves to have his paws  held and stroked, doesn't mind a "pedicure." And I do plenty of handling where my hand is in his collar.

In fact, one of his exercises is a little "Get it!"  I kneel down and slip a couple of fingers under his collar (in front, under his chin, palm up).  The other hand holds a little treat above his head.  Saying, "Get it!" I pop him up to the treat.  "Pop him up" has quickly become a joke.  He likes this little exercise so much that I have to restrain him to keep him from leaping for the treat as it emerges from my top left pocket.  I alternate right and left sides.  Not only is this just one more fun activity with my hand in Presto!'s collar; more importantly it gets him jumping for treats.  Throughout his training there will be situations where I'll want to have him jump for treats -- it builds drive.

So much to learn.  And so much fun!


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

BRINGING UP PRESTO! A Yarn About Tugging

Long before the first time I held him in my arms and he gave me nonstop kisses, Presto! had really close friends.

His breeders, Mike and Maureen Inman, have a nine-year-old daughter named Jessica.  And Jess has a friend named Jenna.  As Presto! was handed over to me in O'Hare Airport, I was told that Jess and Jenna had given him his pre-adoption bath that afternoon. And that they had been his caregivers . . . and had fallen madly in love with him.

Jenna and Jess had made "cards" for me on sheets of colored paper.  One said:  Dear Willard, please take very good care of Presto! for us.  We know you will.  He is an amazing dog and we love him.  Thank you for taking care of him.

Along with the cards came a special toy.  Jess and Jenna had woven strands of colorful yarn into a little tug toy . . . just right for my eight-week-old guy.

That toy, made of yarn and love, became an important part of Presto!'s earliest lessons.  I used it to teach him to tug . . . and release!  Any dog can tug, but the trick is to control the game. -- to teach him to surrender the toy on command.

It took Presto! about one short lesson -- four reps -- to figure out that the word "Give" would instantly be followed by a little treat in exchange for the toy.  By the second lesson he was tugging with one eye on my left shirt pocket, from whence cometh the treats.  When the hand went to the pocket the tug toy was released. Proving for the umpteenth time that my border collies are smarter than I am.  But at eight weeks??!!

Yes, Jess and Jenna, Presto! is an amazing dog.  And yes, I'm taking very good care of him.


Friday, July 6, 2012

Bringing Up Presto! "Little Follows"

There's a rumor skulking about in the land that teaching heeling is b-o-r-i-n-g for the dog.  Shh!  My dogs don't know that.

Presto! and I arrived in Phoenix from Chicago on a Wednesday evening.  He had his first competition obedience lesson late Thursday morning.  Little fun things, each of which served as foundation building for the competition exercises of the future.

Embedded in that 10 minutes of fun was the important prelude (well, more like pre-prelude) to heeling.  Louise Meredith, the doyenne of all this stuff, calls this first phase "little follows."  Okay, little follow exercises on day one of my little guy's training.

With Presto! in front of me -- well, sort of in front of me, they skitter around at eight weeks of age -- I held a little treat in both hands, the treat plainly visible.  Way down there at nose level.  Then I took a few steps backward.  Presto! followed, straining to get the treat.  We did that a few times, the purpose being to get the little guy head up, focused on the treat.  Indeed he was; he was right on it.

By Friday morning I was convinced he was locked in and I started leading him in little figure eights around my legs.

Soon I added the piece de resistance for the little follows phase.  Now the treat ( PetBotanics, quarter-inch squares) moved to my left hand, between my thumb and forefinger. At this point heel position means nothing.  I go to him, meeting him where he is, positioning myself so that he's on my left side -- in the same zip code as heel position.  The treat is held maybe half an inch above his nose.

At this point I introduce the command, "Strut!"  That will be my command to move out when the judge says, "Forward."  Here at the dawn of Presto!'s heeling experience I only want Presto! to hear the word and begin to associate it with moving forward.  A few steps and Presto! gets the treat and a ton of quiet praise.

Except when I call my dog from a distance, all my verbalizations are quiet.  Those who yell at their dogs during training are simply betraying weakness and ineptitude.  And God help you if one of them is in the next ring when you are showing.

Yo! Great Dane owners.  Blessed is the tall dog.  I'm 6'5".  When Presto! is "heeling," head up, his nose is about 16 inches above the ground.  I have to think that right now my little follows must be comical to the observer.  So the photo above is a little treat for you . . . to give you your jollies.

Oh, my achin' back!


Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Presto! came home on Wednesday, the day he turned eight weeks old.  His training began the next day, at eight weeks and one day.  I would have preferred to start working with him at seven weeks, but the intransigent curmudgeons at  the FAA wouldn't allow the little guy on an airplane until he was eight weeks old.

Job One was FOCUS.  On ME.   And the time to start was now.

I sat on the kitchen floor, my back against the cabinets below the counter.  Legs apart in a V.  I held a treat (Pet Botanics from PetSmart, cut in tiny quarter-inch cubes) between my lips.  "Presto!, come!" Both hands in his collar, I guided him up the front of me so he could get the treat from between my lips.

Presto! thought that was swell.  He was doing exactly as I wanted, coming in, head up, looking me in the face.  Until the third time.  That was when he realized there was a treasure trove of those same goodies in my upper left shirt pocket.  So he fought to get there instead of my mouth.

Lesson learned . . . by me.  Henceforth when we practice that or anything like that, the treats will be above us, on the kitchen counter.  And I'll put them into service one at a time.

There was, however, a plus -- a big plus -- to that little incident.  When I begin to teach heeling I want the dog's focus to be on my upper left (on my armband in the later stages), and I want the treats to always come out of that top left pocket.  Not out of a fanny pack positioned God knows where.  I strongly emphasize this -- to the extent that I have female students who are driving up Old Navy stock because Old Navy has womens shirts with two breast pockets.


On that first day of training we also began restrained puppy recalls.  My wife Barbara knelt behind Presto!, restraining him with her hands clasped around his chest -- not holding him by his collar.  At the other endof the yard (or on 113-degree days at the other end of a carpeted hallway) I called, "Presto! COME!"  The puppy had to leap over Barbara's clasped hands to get going.  Not every puppy will leap out of there, but if they will it's a nice way to begin to build drive.

Presto! exploded out of the restraint and came charging to me and the treat I held in both hands.  And right there I caught a glimpse of the wonderful raw material I have to work with.


Saturday, June 30, 2012


First we need a little traveling music:

In order to train the puppy, you've got to have the puppy.  Presto! was in Chicago.  I was in Phoenix.  He was born May 2.  Federal Avation Administration regulations decree that you can't have a puppy on an airplane until he's eight weeks old.  For Presto! that would be June 27.

There was no way I was going to ship a puppy into Phoenix in late June.  That's when our brutal summer heat outdoes itself.  In fact, the hottest day on record in Phoenix came on June 26, 1990, a cool 122 degrees.  The airport even shut down that afternoon.  There were no data available about how aircraft would perform at that temperature.  So rather than risk having sheet metal several feet deep all around the airport, they grounded the planes.

Okay, I'd fly to Chicago and get the little guy.  My mission was accomplished in a 10-hour round trip.  But not before some anxious moments in O'Hare, the airport where Chicagoan and winter snowbird Lynn Glickauf was to transfer Presto! (Wildfire Black Magic) from her arms to mine.  Lynn, an excellent student and an even better friend had quarterbacked a puppying adventure which resulted in my getting the pick of an extraordinary Wildfire litter.

All went well until Lynn and I got our wires crossed about exactly where we'd meet in the airport.  I was at the American Airlines ticket counter.  Lynn was one floor below in the baggage claim area . . . without her cell phone. And the clock was ticking toward the departure time for my return flight to Phoenix.  By the time we found each other, a precious 30 minutes had elapsed.

By the time I reached security there must have been 200 people in line ahead of me, and the P.A. system was blaring the news that American 1733 -- my flight! -- would begin boarding in 30 minutes.

No way!  My God, I was going to miss my flight.  I was going to be stuck in Chicago all night.  No clean underwear.  No toothbrush.  No food for my little guy.  Panic.

At which point Presto!, now ensconced in the Sherpa bag, tuned up.  His yelping alerted the dozens of people in earshot that I had a cute puppy in that bag.  Pretty soon a TSA security guard came over.  What kind of puppy was that?  Ah, a border collie, his favorite breed; he'd seen them on television.  His son raises goldens.  Yes, I told him, I love goldens; my first obedience dog was a golden. Etc.,etc., etc.

About five minutes into that yelp-punctuated conversation the light bulb went on over my head.  I wagged my head sadly.  "I'm really worried," I said, "I was detained and I'm afraid I'm going to miss my flight."

The TSA guard didn't bat an eye.  "Come with me, " he said, and he lifted the restraining rope.  That kind man took us past the hundreds of people who had been in front of us and shepherded us through each step in the security chain.

The last step in the process surprised me.  I was taken aside to a small area where my hands were swabbed with some sort of fluid.  Then strips of (I guess) paper were drawn across my palms and fed through a small machine.  The purpose of that special check, I was told, was to see if I had traces of explosives on my hands.  A wisecrack like, "Yeah, this puppy is dynamite," went through my mind . . . and stayed there.

So the idea was that terrorists might load a puppy with explosives and set them off in flight.  The first thought is, Who would do a thing like that to a puppy?  Followed quickly by, Well, I'm told they eat them, so I guess they'd blow them up.

As it turned out, my flight was delayed 30 minutes.  "Maintenance issues."  So it was nearly 10 o'clock when we landed at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.  Except for about 10 seconds of yelping midway during our flight, Presto! was perfectly quiet for the nearly four hour duration.  I suspect being in a Sherpa bag under the seat in front of me was a lot more comfortable than were the rest of us packed like sardines at 33,00 feet.


I have no data to prove that my method of introducing a new member to our pack is sacrosanct.  All I know is no new puppy has ever come into our house greeted by snarls and bared teeth.

I do the introductions on neutral ground.  That's why midnight on June 27 found us in Moon Valley Park.  Barbara met us at the airport, dropped me off at home and took Presto! directly to the park.  I loaded Bravo! and Cheddar in my Chevy Express van and followed them.  So there we were in the pitch dark in the middle of the night, introducing them one at a time.  Surely passersby thought,  Aha!  A drug deal going down.

Like I said, I have no data.  But the next day Presto! tugged furiously at Cheddar's tail.  Later he stole Bravo!'s Kong toy from under his nose. All with nary a curled lip.  And on the third day they staged a game of three-way chase in the backyard.

My case rests.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012


This blog is about to undergo a change of direction.

On Wednesday evening, June 27, I will fly into Phoenix from Chicago where I will have done a one-day turnaround.  In a Sherpa bag at my feet (or on my lap, depending upon the mood of the flight attendants that evening) will be eight-week-old Wildfire Black Magic.  "Presto!" to you.  Yes, with the exclamation point.

Through the good graces and clout of student and friend Lynn Glickauf  -- a Chicago summer resident and Scottsdale snowbird -- I have been awarded pick of the litter from an extraordinary litter of Wildfire border collies.

Presto! will begin competition obedience training the next morning at eight weeks and one day. 

Anyone who has had any success in any endeavor can point to one or two people who have had a significant positive impact on their development.  In my case those people are Debby Boehm and Louise Meredith.  The "syllabus" for Presto!'s training, from day one, will be a melding of what I have learned from those two friends across more than two decades in the sport.  From Louise: the nuts and bolts of perfect execution of the exercises.  From Debby: how to instill in the dog the all-important want-to and pure joy as he trains and trials.

So sometime near the end of this month look for the beginning of "Bringing Up Presto!" embedded in this blog.

I'll reveal all -- our successes as well as when we have egg all over our faces -- and undoubtedly some outrageous stuff you'd never expect to read anywhere else.


Monday, May 7, 2012


Recently, in a moment of weakness, I volunteered to judge obedience at the 4-H Maricopa County finals (the Phoenix area).

The only thing I knew about 4-H was that my wife had been a member when she was a little girl.  "What did you do in 4-H?" I inquired.

"I ruined lots of material, " she responded.  Which was her way of telling me she was in the sewing program, and not very good at it.

Arrangements for my judging gig were made with one of the leaders who quickly let me know that I wouldn't be judging OTCH-level performances.  "We base our shows on AKC standards," she told me, "although they are somewhat adjusted to take into account that these are children with family pets trained by children."  Then she added, "We (those who are teaching the kids obedience competition) are trying to stay one step ahead of the children."

Some of the "adjustments" include:  If a dog poops or pees in the ring, that's ten points off, not cause for excusal.  If a dog breaks a sit or a down during the group exercises, it's up to the judge's discretion how to penalize that team. One girl whose golden retriever had done relatively well had her golden get up from the long down only seconds before I was about to say, "Return to your dogs."  I deducted ten points.  A little boy's dog went down on the sit almost as soon as the exercise began.  The boy quickly got the dog back up again and the dog finished the exercise sitting.  I took off 20 points.

By and large the individual exercises were an adventure.  Tight leashes were the rule rather than the exception.  Most of those kids talked to their dogs throughout the entire run.  About 75 percent of the competitors made a left U-turn when I said, "About turn."  Clearly one of the leaders who was "staying one step ahead of the kids" was teaching the about turn in the wrong direction.  I quickly stopped scoring that; those kids were doing what they had been taught.

One little girl -- a kid so tiny we were shocked to learn she was 12 years old -- was cool as a cucumber.  They were heeling quite nicely when her dog stopped in mid-pattern and pooped.

While the stewards were cleaning up the mess, I asked her, "Did you walk your dog before you brought him in here?" 

"Oh yes," she said, "and he went.  But he saved some"

All that, though, is incidental.  What really knocked my socks off was the appearance, the demeanor, the overall quality of that group of kids.

Strikingly polite.  So well-mannered.  After I had finished judging one little girl, I paused to make a note on the scoresheet.  I was so focused on my clipboard that I didn't realize she hadn't left the ring.  I felt something tugging at my right hand.  She was determined to shake my hand and say, "Thank you."  Which she did.

And the appearance of those kids!  Clean-cut.  Clean, pressed pants and shirts.  I didn't see one kid attired in a T-shirt emblazoned with an obscene message.

Later, driving home, an astonishing thing occurred to me:  Across the five hours I was with that group, I didn't see one kid glued to one cell phone for one second.  Stunning!

And the parents.  There they were.  At ringside.  Cooking lunch.  Running the bake sale and the silent raffle. And of course volunteering their time as 4-H leaders.  Parents who were committed to raising good kids . . . and were putting in the time.

Tight leash: 10 points.

Talking to the dog: 15 points.

Fluffy's failure to stay put during the stand for exam: NQ

The life lessons those kids are learning: PRICELESS!


Thursday, April 26, 2012


In the wake of several blog posts regarding the decline of participation in competition obedience, I received an email from a long-time astute observer/participant in the sport.  Her comments dealt with misconceptions and lack of awareness that she felt might contribute to keeping people out of the sport.  I'd like to share a few of those comments.  The sentences in italics are my comments about her comments.

1.  Some people assume that since their dog is spayed, neutered or not AKC-registered it does not qualify to show in obedience or any other performance class.

When the AKC began allowing mixed breeds to compete, a lot of us thought we'd see an immediate increase in Novice entries.  I've seen precious few All-American dogs coming into the sport.  That may be because the message is being preached to the choir -- to those who are already tuned into the AKC, dog sports and purebred dogs.  The everyday mixed-breed dog owner may not even be aware of the channels through which the message is being sent.  Much less the message itself.

2.  Others assume that to train obedience you have to be mean or to hurt your dog.  Still others believe from wives' tales or experience that obedience training is not fun for man or beast.

And why wouldn't those notions still persist?  Our world is still filled with "old school" trainers, too weak to train, retardates who can only force a dog to comply.  They're everywhere.  Last Saturday I was in a city park, working with a student whose dog had fallen into the hands of an abusive trainer before they turned to me. (And how is that dog doing now? you ask.  Quite nicely, thank you, and very happy.)  During the lesson, we were flanked on either side by electric collar classes.  Our distractions that morning were the pitiful yelps of the dogs as they got zapped.  The ignorant suckers who had coughed up money to have their dogs abused probably loved those dogs and had no idea there was another way.

3.  Pet owners who have shown enough interest to watch a competition in person are a source of potential competitors.  But only if obedience looks like fun enough to overcome perceived obstacles and be achievable.  Spectators rarely see teams having fun in the obedience ring.  Outbursts of joy by the team in the ring are discouraged, and in some classes touching the dog is penalized.  Isn't petting your dog a basic enjoyment of having a dog?  Amen.

(Observers) judge the sport by how much fun the exhibitors and dogs appear to be having in and around the ring.  Sadly, agility does look like a lot more fun.

Yea and verily.



Thursday, April 5, 2012


Much has been said, many hands have been wrung regarding the drop-off in competition obedience entries in recent years.  Clearly the task of beefing up entries in AKC obedience is multidimensional. This post addresses one of those dimensions.

It has been suggested to me that a letter to the AKC -- coming from many all-breed and obedience clubs --might prompt the AKC to look into how to tap the vast reservoir of "prospects" that take Petco or PetSmart obedience classes.  But it will be effective only if many clubs take the initiative to send the letter.

Here is a suggested letter.



Mr. Dennis B. Sprung
President & Chief Executive Officer
American Kennel Club
260 Madison Avenue
New York, NY  10016                 

Dear Mr. Sprung:

Much has been said and written across the past decade or so about the drop-off in competition obedience entries.

Various steps have been taken to make competition obedience trials more attractive and exhibitor-friendly.  Novice A people are offered an orientation walk-through.  New entry-level classes have been introduced, as have several intermediate classes.  Some clubs offer token gifts to Novice A entrants.

Those are steps in the right direction.  However, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is listening . . .  As someone said, “It’s hard to embrace something if you don’t know it exists.”

Which is the case with the vast majority of the thousands of students who participate in the beginner dog obedience classes each year at Petco and PetSmart.  Most of the instructors have no idea that a dog sport called competition obedience exists.  Hence, neither do their students.

The purpose of this letter is to suggest that the AKC seriously explore establishing working relationships with Petco and PetSmart to introduce their students, in an attractive way, to the lifetime joys available in AKC dog sports.



It would be nice to know to what extent a letter-writing campaign takes off as a result of this suggestion.  If your club acts on this and sends a letter, perhaps you'd be kind enough to drop me a note at